By Dan Tynan
May 11, 2011 -- The first time Chris Bowman, DDS, offered a Groupon deal -- an at-home whitening service for just $77 -- more than 200 new patients signed up.
But nearly 90% of those who showed up said they already had a dentist they liked, said Dr. Bowman, owner of Advanced Dentistry of Charlotte, NC. Prepping the whitening trays was a "ton of work," he said, and the online group coupon service produced very few patients interested in long-term care.
But Dr. Bowman was undeterred. The next time he used Groupon, he offered a choice of treatments for $89, with hefty discounts for patients who signed up for veneers or Invisalign procedures. Again more than 200 people signed up, but this time the patients proved to be of a much higher caliber, he said.
“We've been floored by the overall quality of the patients.”
— Chris Bowman, DDS, Charlotte, NC.
"So far we've seen about 55 to 60 people, and we've been floored by the overall quality of the patients," Dr. Bowman told DrBicuspid.com. "We've started or completed about $48,000 in dentistry, with about $60,000 more 'highly certain' on deck. This does not include the almost $8,000 we received from Groupon."
Over the past year, group discount shopping services such as Groupon, LivingSocial, and Facebook Deals have taken the Internet by storm. Merchants who sign up with these sites offer significant discounts to attract new customers; the deal only becomes available if enough people sign up. The merchant and Groupon then split the revenues. Though merchants don't generally make much money on Groupon deals, they do it in the hopes a significant percentage of bargain hunters will turn into repeat customers.
For dentists like Tony Soileau, DDS, such services are far less expensive and more effective than traditional advertising for attracting new patients. Dr. Soileau promotes his Smiles by Soileau practice in Lafayette, LA, using Living Social and local group discount services.
"If I wanted to get 50 new patients coming through the door, I'd have to spend $50,000 on a TV commercial or $2,000 on a magazine ad -- and those ads would cost me the same whether anybody came in the door or not," he said.
A typical deal brings 50 to 60 new patients into his practice, Dr. Soileau said, with 20% to 30% of them coming back for further treatments.
Customer service is key
Tim Collins, DDS, who has run two Groupon deals for Invisalign services at Complete Dental Health in San Diego, said good customer service is essential to making these deals work.
"You have to be ready to deal with a lot of phone calls the day the offer runs," he said. "We made sure extra staff was available just to pick up the phone and answer questions. That's critical to making sales and getting good Internet feedback. You know that if you screw up, these people will go on Yelp and Groupon's message boards and bad mouth you. You'd end up shooting yourself in the foot."
But not all dentists are sold on Groupon. Jeff Gray, DDS, also of San Diego, went in on a deal with nine other dentists, offering a $59 examination and cleaning, plus $1,100 off Invisalign procedures.
Though he got "one fantastic patient" out of the deal, "overall it was pretty depressing," he said. "When we did the exams, most people had no interest in anything other than the budget cleaning. A couple of them said, 'I just buy a Groupon every six months and go get my teeth cleaned.' "
Savvy discount shopping
How you use discount services to market your practice can make the difference between success and frustration. Here's some advice from the pros.
Don't be afraid to negotiate. Though Groupon typically takes half of every dollar spent, you may be able to negotiate a better deal, said Dr. Bowman -- especially if you're willing to be flexible about the prices you charge.
Treat all patients alike. Some offices offer a lower grade of service to bargain hunters -- a big mistake, Dr. Soileau, said. "If you treat these patients differently, you're going to lose them," he said.
Dr. Schultz believes you need to do even better than that. "You need to treat every new patient as the most spectacular thing that has happened to you that day," he said. "It's your opportunity to convince patients this is the office for them."
Beware of shady deals. When Dr. Gray went in on a Groupon deal with nine other dental pros, he was asked to pay $500 to join, and he shared in none of the revenues produced by the coupons. If he does a Groupon deal in the future, he'll go solo, he said.
Price it right. How much you charge for a deal depends on the kind of practice you run. "It has to be an impulse buy," Dr. Solieau said. "Doctors who charge more than $100 don't do nearly as well as those who charge $50 to $60." Dr. Bowman agreed, noting that offering a deal for just under $100 will bring the best mix of "quality" patients and number of buyers.
Some dental pros worry that using a group discount service sends a signal that they are desperate for patients. Others report struggles getting Groupon to return their calls, or complain they have to wait weeks or months before their deals appear.
Robert Maccario, president of Dental Management Sciences in Reno, NV, contacted Groupon 10 times over two months before finally being told that his practice was "not the right fit." He suspects they just sent him away for being a pest, he told DrBicuspid.com.
Others say Groupon sales reps push them into accepting deals priced lower than they would like, or that their staff resents the extra workload that handling a flood of discount patients entails.
Yet, in the right circumstances, such services can help practices trying to stay afloat in difficult economic times.
"Many of the new patients have asked me if Groupon is a good thing," said Ben Schultz, DDS, of Brick Walk Esthetic Dentistry in Fairfield, CT. "I tell them I don't know; everything depends on more of them staying with my office and needing dentistry. I know that I am busier than I have ever been, and am doing more dentistry on these patients than what they paid Groupon for."
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